Mind games and mysteries abound in Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation

The Mule has disrupted Hari Seldon's plan, and nothing can save the Foundation. Unless — yes! There's another Foundation, hidden away at Star's End. Or is there? Let's find out, as we dig into Second Foundation, by Isaac Asimov.

Welcome to day three of Foundation Week, brought to you by Blogging the Hugos. On Monday, we looked at Isaac Asimov's classic Foundation, and yesterday we covered Foundation and Empire. Now we're on to 1953's Second Foundation.

(Spoilers follow.)

Mind games and mysteries abound in Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation

JW: So now we come to the last book in the original Foundation Trilogy — and, as I mentioned last time, my favorite of the whole series. I think in some ways it's kind of a silly favorite — if we had to argue it in front of a group of literary critics, anyway, I imagine you could make a stronger case for the worthiness of Foundation and Empire. But I can't help it.

I just — I recall the first time I read the Foundation series, and the thrill I got when I realized we'd be learning more about the mysterious Second Foundation, so glancingly, alluringly alluded to in "The Psychohistorians" and "The Encyclopedists," from the first book. I don't know what it is (and I'm sure it isn't at all unique to me), but I just love when a story hints at something early on, almost offhandedly, and then lets it percolate in the back of your brain for a while. It's the same feeling I got when Jabba the Hutt appeared in the flabby flesh in Return of the Jedi, after having been simply a shapeless, ominous name in A New Hope. It's the same feeling I got when Destruction showed up in Sandman. Suddenly, a mysterious locked door — a door you passed by and had almost forgotten about — swings open.

Also — well, I had better say something about the story here, before I keep going. Like Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation consists of two stories, the first one long but not crazy-lengthy, the second really a novella. The first one was originally called "Now You See It — " and is here titled "Search by the Mule," and that latter moniker sums up the plot precisely concisely.

Mind games and mysteries abound in Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation

The Mule, whom we met at the end of Foundation and Empire, has used his ability to control emotions to conquer much of the galaxy, drawing a vast swath of planets into his Union of Worlds. He rules as First Citizen from the planet Kalgan.

His power is nearly unlimited, but one thorn sticks in his side: The Mule has never been able to find the Second Foundation, since Bayta Darell killed the psychologist Ebling Mis just as Mis was on the verge of revealing its location. And so he reigns in mild but constant paranoia, hiding, sure that the Second Foundation is maneuvering against him in secret, to knock him off his throne and restore Hari Seldon's plan for a Second Galactic Empire.

For years now, Captain Han Pritcher, whom we met in Foundation and Empire, and who is now a devoted Converted servant of the Mule, has searched for the Second Foundation for his master. When "Search by the Mule" opens, Pritcher is convinced that the Second Foundation must be a myth; it could never hide itself so well. But the Mule remains sure it's out there, and to find it, he assigns a bright young man whom he hasn't Converted, Bail Channis, to help Pritcher look. The Mule's logic is that when he subjects otherwise intelligent folk like Pritcher to emotional control, they lose a key sense of initiative; his hope is that the Unconverted Channis still has that necessary sense, and that it will push him to succeed where Pritcher has failed.

Where "Search by the Mule" gets silly is in its First Interlude, at the end of the first chapter. This is when we meet the Second Foundation, and it is simply so ridiculous that it is glorious.

When Hari Seldon set up the first Foundation, he didn't include any psychologists in its population, because for the science of psychohistory to function, its subjects can't have any knowledge of how their own actions might influence the course of events. As it turns out, though, the Second Foundation consists entirely of scientists studying psychology. And though their understanding of the physical sciences is weak, over the centuries they have honed their mental abilities to a razor-keen edge.

In the broad strokes that compose the Foundation universe, this means, for example, that when two Second Foundationers have a conversation, they barely speak — instead, they can communicate whole paragraphs simply by raising an eyebrow, or quirking their mouths, or lifting a finger just so. "Speech as known to us was unnecessary," writes Asimov in his description of them. "A fragment of a sentence amounted almost to long-winded redundancy. A gesture, a grunt, the curve of a facial line — even a significantly timed pause yielded informational juice." And so Asimov begs our forgiveness: Since it is impossible to actually replicate a Second Foundation conversation in print, he must settle for translating it into the unwieldy mechanism of verbal dialogue.

There is no better word for this than silly. But what a wonderful silliness. And Asimov makes it crystal clear, while maintaining a perfectly straight face, that he is in on the joke, and because it's such a fun joke, we go with him willingly, eagerly.

AW: The Second Foundation is a great concept — I just think it took Asimov a few tries to get it right, and I'd argue it actually isn't until Foundation's Edge that Asimov is able to fully move the idea beyond the silliness he introduces in "Search by the Mule." You've made a few literary comparisons to describe your response to the Second Foundation, and I'd like to advance an even geekier one that I picked up on while rereading Second Foundation. This mysterious group of godlike psychologists reminded me a lot of how the classic Doctor Who tried to move the Time Lords from vague backstory to omnipotent guardians of the universe and then finally to characters in their own right. Right now, we're somewhere between omnipotent guardians and actual characters, and that's a deeply strange place to be. Indeed, the need to maintain the sense of mystery ultimately makes their scenes a bit silly and tedious.

Mind games and mysteries abound in Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation

I'm afraid I don't much share your enthusiasm for the Second Foundationers in "Search by the Mule." Indeed, "Search by the Mule" just generally seems like a bit of a placeholder between two first-tier Asimov stories, a way to rather unceremoniously write the Mule out of the series. Much as I love Han Pritcher, his Converted incarnation is a tricky protagonist to really connect with. Obviously, this is by design, but it's not even that Han Pritcher doubts his loyalty to the Mule — he's doubting his capacity to doubt his loyalty to the Mule. It's a lot of second derivative characterization, so to speak, and I just found it tough to be all that interested in it.

I also have a more basic issue with "Search by the Foundation" — everything seems like a bit of a waste of time. Bail Channis identifies the faraway planet of Tazenda as the location of the Second Foundation, because it has a somewhat strange geopolitical history, it's sort of (but not really) on the other side of the galaxy from Terminus, and it sort of sounds like "Star's End," which Hari Seldon said was the site of the Second Foundation all those years ago. That's a transparently unconvincing argument, and all the Second Foundation stuff makes it clear this is all some great misdirect. I doubt Asimov intended readers to seriously assume Tazenda was the Second Foundation...but the problem is that Han Pritcher and Bail Channis seem to think just that. So we're left with a lot of slow, bureaucratic scenes on Tazenda's client planet Rossem, and it's hard to shake the notion that this is all pointless. At least "The General" had the good sense to keep Lathan Devers and Ducem Barr's pointless heroics confined to a couple of pages.

Of course, like with pretty much all the post-Mule Foundation stories, there's a big plot twist coming. In fact, I think there's about three or four of them that Asimov crams into a very hectic final couple of chapters that, if nothing else, shows off some rather audacious plotting. But I'm starting to feel a bit curmudgeonly towards my favorite author, so I think I'll turn the mic over to you. Can you — at the risk of a truly dreadful pun — convert me on "Search by the Mule"?

JW: Uh, probably not. No, I totally recognize the numerous flaws in this story — it's as much a Rube Goldberg device as it is a piece of fiction, maybe more so. Asimov pretty obviously worked backward from the effect he desired, and every stage of "Search by the Mule" is so visibly contrived; you can feel the plot twists coming from that first interlude where we meet the Second Foundation. In fact, there's very little to compel the reader to keep going except that sense that a tremendous reveal lies ahead. (Like you say, Pritcher isn't a great character here; neither is Channis. The only at-all-delightful figure is the Mule, who radiates a sort of Ben Linus charm.)

The only thing I can say in its defense as a story is that (mild spoiler here) the Rube Goldberg–ness makes sense, since everything boils down to a Second Foundation plan to draw out the Mule and nullify the threat he poses. That is: If the story's plot seems very lockstep, that's basically because all of the characters' behaviors have been anticipated and rigorously cultivated by the Second Foundation. I don't think that excuses it, necessarily. But it is what it is. The original title is "Now You See It — " after all, and I enjoy the story as a magic trick more than as outstanding literah-toooohr.

Mind games and mysteries abound in Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation

Here's the other thing I like about it, although I don't think this lifts it out of the placeholder status you (probably accurately) ascribe to it: It expands on the idea of emotional control. Basically, it says, OK, psychic powers are part of the Foundation universe.

I mean, up till now, with the exception of the Mule, who was supposed to be a total aberration, there has not been any truly fantastic element in the Foundation stories. Yeah, sure, there's psychohistory, of course — but although it's fascinating as a concept, it is still at its root just math. (And terribly complex math, at that — running through any discussion of it is an undercurrent that says, "If this were real, you wouldn't be smart enough to understand it, folks.") And then there are spaceships and blasters. Which are awfully mundane. No one, given the chance to enact a single solitary science-fiction trope in real life, would say, "I want to ride in a spaceship!" or "I want to shoot a laser!" Not with teleportation and invisibility and actual flying, among many other options, to choose from.

But telepathy? Controlling minds? That sounds fun. And as we'll see in Foundation's Edge, "mentalics" quickly become central to the series' overall story arc. Without them, Asimov just could not have broached the big questions he raises at the end of that book. (I also think it's kind of cool that there's some internal consistency in his mythos, even if he wasn't aiming for it at the time. If I'm not mistaken, the robot stories eschew any sort of fantastical elements, too — outside, of course, of the development of robots — except for the odd little "Liar!" which features, yes, psychic powers.)

But we should move on to "Search by the Foundation" (originally titled " — And Now You Don't"), which, as should be apparent, details the original Foundation's attempts to uncover their more mentally proficient counterparts. Our heroine is one Miss Arcadia — ahem, Arkady, please — Darell, granddaughter of Bayta from "The Mule," and daughter of a researcher leading a secret movement against the Second Foundation.

I'll probably get denied that teaching job for saying so, but every time I look at the cover of my Del Rey 1989 edition of Second Foundation, I fall a little bit in love with Arkady. I know, I know — she's fourteen. But she could totally pass for seventeen and a half in the illustration. Anyway, chalk it up to a dearth of available women in this series so far, and more so, to the fact that she is such a trip — overconfident and impetuous, but witty and awfully smart for a kid.

Now I have to give Asimov some big ups for how he kicks off this story. One of the minor issues with the original Foundation Trilogy is that, because it's a collection of what were originally short stories, every single section has to recap what has come before. It's a testament to the smoothness of Asimov's writing that you barely notice this, despite the fact that in all the preceding stories, for the umpteenth time you find yourself hearing one character brief another on how Hari Seldon developed psychohistory and predicted the Empire's downfall and formed the Foundation to reduce 30,000 years of chaos to a single millennium and BLAH BLAH BLAH.

Mind games and mysteries abound in Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation

Anyway, Asimov manages to pack in the backstory pretty neatly in a few other stories (he actually made the necessity of the explanation a key plot point back in "The Merchant Princes"), but never so sweetly and ingeniously as here.

"Search by the Foundation" opens in Arkady's bedroom, where she is, naturally, dictating a report for school into a voice-transcriber. The subject? "The Future of Seldon's Plan."

I'm not going to excerpt the entire report here, but those readers who have read it will know that it is a pitch-perfect replication of an essay by a pretty smart 14-year-old with a flair for the epic: "But the question in the mind of most people today is whether this Plan will continue in all its great wisdom, or whether it will be foully destroyed, or, perhaps, has been so destroyed already."

IT IS ADORABLE. (There's also the great joke about fellow student Olynthus Dam.) And more than anything, it tells us that, OK, this will be a slightly different Foundation story from those that have come before.

AW: I only have a couple more idle thoughts to add about "Search by the Mule," and then we can get to the heart of the matter. The first is truly a trifle — but I must admit it's interesting to see characters named Han and Bail chasing after a bunch of mysterious, possibly nonexistent mental masters in the service of a deformed, rather wicked, would-be empire-builder with his own singular mental powers. I imagine it's all just a coincidence, but Asimov himself liked pointing out the superficial similarities between the Foundation and Star Wars universes, and I think "Search by the Mule" might manage to cram in the most random little future connections...not that, in all probability, there's anything actually to them.

Anyway, I do have one last, rather more substantial point I'd like to make. Rereading all the Foundation books once more, I do get the sense that Asimov was trying to do some things in that story — complex triple plot twists and mental wrestling, to name two — that were a bit outside his then comfort zone, and he needed some additional tries to get it right. The fiendishly complex multiple plot twists he executes to perfection in the very next story, but then there's all the mentalic stuff. The final mental wrestling match between the Mule and the First Speaker of the Second Foundation doesn't quite work, and such an important moment feels dreadfully like a couple men talking to each other in a hut, albeit using a very strange, completely incomprehensible language. I'll grant that it's a bold attempt, but this conceit wouldn't really be perfected until Foundation's Edge, if only because it isn't quite as front and center in the First Foundation-geared "Search by the Foundation."

But anyway, if we're going to talk comfort zones, then we really must talk about Isaac Asimov and women. In time, Asimov grew to be one of history's greatest admirers of the female gender — you'd have to be to write a book that's actually called The Sensuous Dirty Old Man, even in jest — but Asimov always admitted that as a young man, he knew precious little about women, and he published his first short story before his first actual romantic date. That's particularly apparent in his earliest writings — he admits this quite openly in The Early Asimov collection — and there's a very good argument to be made that his earliest female character of any note, the legendary roboticist Susan Calvin, was rather appallingly characterized in her first few appearances. (Check out "Liar" for some particularly cringe-worthy characterization, though it does get better very quickly.) The original book Foundation only features a single female character, but she's such a clichéd shrew that she isn't even really important enough to earn our full contempt. Bayta Darell is unquestionably a step in the right direction, but I wouldn't consider her one of the all-time great science-fiction characters.

Mind games and mysteries abound in Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation

My point is that if one were to guess, back in 1949, which science-fiction author would make a 14-year-old girl his protagonist in one of his most pivotal stories, I very much doubt one would guess Isaac Asimov. And even then, who would ever have guessed this 14-year-girl would be one of the best characters Asimov ever created? Even without knowing that much about the field, I'd still put her on the short list for science fiction's all-time greatest heroes. It's remarkable just how perfectly Asimov captures the occasionally obnoxious precociousness of the gifted teenager — something he had personal experience with, I'd wager — but he also folds in Arkady's romanticism and femininity without ever making them seem silly or stereotypical. It's a particularly remarkable achievement when you consider his earliest Foundation protagonist, Salvor Hardin, was little more than a bunch of pithy epigrams strung together.

Now, as for the story itself — it's pretty brilliant. This is probably the most varied view we ever get of the Foundation universe, as Asimov looks at life in the bland, boring suburbs (Arkady and her father's home on Terminus), the bustling metropolis of a pleasure planet (Kalgan), and rural isolation on the ghostly remnants of Trantor. "The Mule" also had its space opera moments, and the later Foundation and Earth is pretty much a full-on travelogue, but here we get the greatest sense of how varied the galaxy is, and how lots of different people can lead entirely different lives. There's also a ton of great characters here — obviously Arkady, but also the unlikely conspirators led by her father, Toran Darell II, and the brash young scientist Pelleas Anthor; the ruddy Trantorian farmer Preem Palver and his wife, who is only ever called "Mamma"; the latest First Citizen of Kalgan and the Mule's would-be successor, Lord Stettin, and his fawning consort, the Lady Callia (who rather awesomely insists on calling Stettin "Poochie"); and then even the First Speaker and his student back on the Second Foundation, who, even though we learn practically nothing about them until the very end of the story, are far better drawn than their counterparts in "Search by the Mule."

What I really appreciate about this story is that it makes all the emotional control business introduced back in "The Mule" start to make some actual sense. Asimov does this by introducing the big new Foundation science of electroneurology, which allows them to detect some of the subtle workings of the human brain. Mixed in with some more refined explanations about how language as we understand just shackles our minds behind a fog of imprecise verbiage that only approximates what our minds are trying to say and...yeah, I'm finally willing to get on board with all this mentalics business. For me, this retroactively improved my opinion of "The Mule" (though only slightly, because it was such a strong story anyway) and even "Search by the Mule." Take this passage:

Down — down — the results can be followed; and all the suffering that humanity ever knew can be traced to the one fact that no man in the history of the Galaxy, until Hari Seldon, and every few men thereafter, could really understand one another. Every human being lived behind an impenetrable wall of choking mist within which no other but he existed. Occasionally there were the dim signal from deep with the cavern in which another man was located — so that each might grope toward the other. Yet because they did not know one another, and could not understand one another, and dared not trust one another, and felt from infancy the terrors and insecurity of that ultimate isolation — there was the hunted fear of man for man, the savage rapacity of man toward man.

Feet, for tens of thousands of years, had clogged and shuffled in the mud — and held down the minds which, for an equal time, had been fit for the companionship of the stars. Grimly, Man had instinctively sought to circumvent the prison bars of ordinary speech. Semantics, symbolic logic, psychoanalysis — they had all been devices whereby speech could either be refined or by-passed. Psychohistory had been the development of mental science, the final mathematicization thereof, rather, which had finally succeeded. Through the development of the mathematics necessary to understand the facts of neural physiology and the electro-chemistry of the nervous system, which themselves had to be, had to be, traced down to nuclear forces, it first became possibly to truly develop psychology. And through the generalization of psychological knowledge from the individual to the group, sociology was mathematicized.

Mind games and mysteries abound in Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation

Sorry for the lengthy passage, but I wanted to share it all because Asimov takes the mental powers that seemed so arbitrary and disconnected in "The Mule" and he actually manages to seamlessly weave them not just into the Foundation series but into the entirety of human history. For the first time, mentalics doesn't just feel like a plot necessity to bring down the Foundation and regain some dramatic tension. It feels wholly natural, something in fact demanded by the world of the Foundation, and it's actually hard to imagine how this universe could even function without it. Considering how leery I was to the initial idea, that's pretty damn remarkable.

Still, for all my praise, I haven't even really mentioned the plot at all, which is really something of a masterpiece in and of itself. But I think I've nattered on more than long enough, so I hand things back to you.

JW: Ah, yes — the plot. Let me do this quickly:

Arkady's homework is interrupted by the appearance of a strange young man at her window. This is Pelleas Anthor, the newest member of the tiny resistance group Dr. Darell has assembled to root out the Second Foundation, so that the First Foundation can determine its own destiny. The resistance group meets, and Arkady eavesdrops on them with a listening device. The group decides to send one member, the stuttering librarian Homir Munn, to Kalgan, in the hope that the Mule's successor will give him access to old records that might help uncover the Second Foundation's location.

Munn takes off for Kalgan reluctantly — and Arkady stows away with him, without his or anyone else's knowledge. Even after he discovers her, Munn can't take her home, because doing so would attract greater attention from the Second Foundation, if it is in fact secretly watching. (The reason his trip wouldn't attract notice in the first place is that Munn is the galaxy's chief collector of Mule-related paraphernalia; it makes sense for him to be visiting the former tyrant's palace.)

So Munn and Arkady meet with Poochie — sorry, Lord Stettin — and Lady Callia. Their request to study the Mule's old residence is almost denied — and then Arkady rather deftly manipulates Callia into convincing Stettin to let them in. She's pretty pleased with herself, until she discovers Stettin's motivation: He thinks the granddaughter of Bayta Darell might just make a fine new consort.

And then things get even weirder: Callia warns her to run, and Arkady is struck with a deep certainty that the noblewoman is actually a Second Foundation agent. She flees, and ends up in the care of a Trantorian farmer, Preem Palver, and his wife. She convinces them to take her home with them. Why? Because she's just figured out where the Second Foundation is, and if she goes back to Terminus, they'll be sure to catch her and adjust the knowledge out of her.

Simultaneously, the First Speaker of the Second Foundation has been meeting with an especially prodigious student, a possible successor. It's in these scenes that we get to see a rather nifty little (almost) magical item: the Prime Radiant. It's the one piece of truly advanced technology the Second Foundation lays claim to, a tiny black cube that can project all the equations of the Seldon Plan onto the four walls of a white room. I know, I know — that sounds boring. But it's not exactly like an overhead projector; for one thing, the viewers' shadows somehow don't get in the way. Anyway, there's something really — oh, cinematographically striking about the image of these two men in an otherwise empty room, zooming in on complex formulas to read them like ancient hieroglyphics that reveal that history (and future) of all humanity.

So, the Second Foundationers are struggling to correct this problem: The First Foundation is aware of their existence (or believes in it, anyway) and as a result, believes it is under a sort of divine protection — no matter how bad things get, the Second Foundation will be there in the shadows, looking out for them. And ironically, that belief has screwed up the Second Foundation's ability to look out for them. Because now that the First Foundation knows it's being observed, its actions are influenced by that knowledge and, as a result, can no longer be predicted by psychohistory.

Mind games and mysteries abound in Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation

The Second Foundation's aim, therefore, is pretty tricky. It has to (1) confirm to the First Foundation that it really does exist, (2) feign destruction by Dr. Darell and his fellow conspirators, so that the First Foundation really believes it's gone, and (3) actually survive and continue afterward to manipulate events in secret.

What's interesting is that, even though they're at odds, Darell's group and the Second Foundation both have a vested interest in making (1) and (2) happen. That is actually the one little hitch for me in this story: I'm not sure I buy Darell's outrage that his people's fate is being manipulated by the Second Foundation. I mean, I can understand how, if you had evidence the Illuminati were real, you wouldn't want them secretly interfering with your life. But at the same time, Darell is a Foundationer, born and raised with a basic knowledge of the Seldon Plan, and he seems like a reasonable person. Wouldn't he understand that without the Second Foundation, the Plan collapses? I get why he dislikes his countrymen's quasi-religious faith in the Second Foundation — but it seems like he could treat that as foolish superstition and work to stamp it out, rather than actively working to destroy humanity's safety net.

Or maybe not. Anyway, we wouldn't have a story if he thought that way. I'm just saying his motivation seems undeveloped to me.

AW: I actually am pretty much convinced by Darell's motivation, which I think has to be understood as a principled stand as opposed to a reasoned one. To him, the Second Foundation is the worst kind of oppression imaginable, an invisible dictatorship that can, at will, make him forget everything about himself he holds dear. There's a reason the First Speaker is far more concerned about those who would "resent a ruling class of psychologists, and which would fear its development and fight against it" than he is the Seldon Plan being warped by the First Foundation's awareness of the Second. For all the benevolence of the Second Foundation, it's still a benevolence couched in secrecy and the constant threat of invasion of a person's most prized possession: the mind. To Darell, destroying the Second Foundation might ruin the Seldon Plan, or it might not — the important part is that the First Foundation will be free again, and he is optimistic his Foundation will still be strong enough to win out. And, I suppose, it comes back to the central tension between short-term and long-term thinking found throughout the series: Darell would rather live in freedom for 30 years even if it means sentencing humanity to anarchy for 30,000.

In a way, Toran Darell II is of a kind with Salvor Hardin back in his first appearance, in that he is trying to defeat an enemy against whom he is seemingly completely unmatched with only the dimmest awareness of how he can even fight the battle. Obviously, the contours have changed — Hardin attempted to use his vague grasp of the Seldon Plan to defeat the Four Kingdoms, while Darell is trying to beat both Poochie and the Second Foundation, which is basically the Seldon Plan incarnate. But he and Hardin want very much the same thing — to do right by the Foundation of their day and to stand on their own two feet as the directors of their own destiny. In his way, Toran II is every bit the romantic his daughter Arkady is, even if his romanticism has become wrapped up in careful plotting, endless psychology, and cutting-edge neuroscience.

You can't talk about "Search by the Foundation" without getting into all the plot twists. Some of these I can discuss in a spoiler-free way, but others demand I head into spoiler territory. What I can talk about without any need for spoilers is the denouement of this story, which unravels itself in the chapter "I Know..." Here, Asimov preemptively parodies his own growing fondness for insane twists and story-altering revelations. Practically every last conspirator — Arkady included — gets to advance a theory as to the nature of the Second Foundation: It doesn't exist, it's on Kalgan, it's on Terminus. And just about everyone we've encountered is accused of being — more or less correctly — a puppet of the Second Foundation. It's a scene that's equal parts hilarious and suspenseful, and it's remarkable just how well Asimov rides the line between these two tones.

Mind games and mysteries abound in Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation

I fear I can't continue discussing this story without getting into major spoilers. Consider this a warning.

In pretty much every Foundation story from "The Mule" onward, some major character is not who he or she appears to be. (This reaches its zenith in Prelude to Foundation, which is practically unfilmable because the twist about who characters really are is that massive.) In this story, that's true of not one, not two, not three, but four major characters, and some characters have been so fundamentally tampered with that it's hard to really say where their true selves end and the Second Foundation begins. I didn't remember all these reveals when I reread the story, and I'd have to read it again to judge just how fair Asimov really is about his twists. At least in the case of Lady Callia, Asimov seems to get inside her own head quite a bit without ever hinting at her true nature, and so the misdirect seems more than a little unfair. I suppose one could argue Asimov is making the point that a Second Foundation agent's disguise is so absolute that even the omniscient narrator cannot pierce the truth...but that seems pretty weak, and not really in keeping with Asimov's style. That said, all the actions of the Second Foundation agents do seem to make sense in retrospect; as twisty plots go, this one seems to hang together fairly well.

But there is one element in which I really have to applaud Asimov's storytelling ingenuity, and that's the reveal of the Second Foundation's location, which is on...*deep breath*...Trantor. The First Speaker — or, as we also know him, Preem Palver — makes the brilliant point that Trantor is at the other end of the galaxy in a way only social scientists would imagine it, and not in the way the physical scientists of the Foundation ever would. It's the big mystery that has explicitly hung in the air since "The Mule," and it's really the only answer that fits all the available clues. More to the point, it's actually a fascinating answer in its own right that instantly casts so much of what we saw before in a new light.

Were the Trantorian farmers we met in "The Mule" agents of the Second Foundation? How much did the Second Foundation have to do with the imperial intrigues of "The General" or the protection of the Galactic Library and University that is briefly described in flashback in "The Mule"? Foundation's Edge eventually gives some answers to a few of these questions, but considering the Trantor revelation was meant as a series-ending twist, it's an immensely satisfying one because it really does force a reappraisal of everything that has come before. The only other planet that could possibly have packed a similar punch is if the Second Foundation was somehow on Earth...and Asimov clearly recognized that, because his next two Foundation books were all about that possibility.

Anyway, what I really love about the twist is just how subtly Asimov builds toward it. Consider the end of Chapter 14, in which Arkady realizes she knows where the Second Foundation is located, but it is not revealed where she thinks it might be. The very next chapter, "Through the Grid," begins with an entry from the Encyclopedia Galactica. The entry? Why, "Trantor," of course, and it's remarkable how obvious that clue is in retrospect and how completely I missed it the first time through. And then there's Preem Palver's simple declaration that "I know these people better than you do, girl," which just reeks of dramatic irony upon rereading. Asimov is quite clearly living by one of Salvor Hardin's epigrams: "It pays to be obvious, especially if you have a reputation for subtlety."

All in all, this story is a triumph, and even if Asimov had never written another Foundation story — hell, even if "The Mule" had been a total piece of crap — this story alone would be enough to make the Foundation saga worthy of its special Hugo Award. (That's right — I still remember, however vaguely, why we're talking about all this in the first place.) It's a story that can be read any number of different ways: as action-adventure, as a mystery, as a character piece, as a deconstruction of all the previous stories, as a slice-of-life on an increasingly suburban and boring Terminus, and as Asimov's final (for now) statement on how the physical and mental sciences can be brought to coexist and make for a better future for humanity. This story is all about the final victory of the Foundation...does it really matter which one?

Mind games and mysteries abound in Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation

JW: Well, that's what's interesting, isn't it? The first time I encountered the series, I thought it was all of a piece and had no idea of the hiatus between Second Foundation and Foundation's Edge. So it's hard to put myself in the position of someone who originally enjoyed it as a trilogy ending here (much less one who read it in bits and pieces, as short stories). But I can understand why both readers and Asimov's editors clamored for him to pick it up again.

The true location of the Second Foundation is, indeed, the most satisfying of all the twists in a very twisty mythos. In fact, if I could ask Asimov one question, it would be when exactly he came up with it, because it strikes such a perfect note, it feels like a secret that's been kept since before the first story was written. I'm just not sure it completely works as an overall ending, but I'll get to that in a second.

I just want to interrupt myself to comment on the abundance of mental tampering you mention. OK, I can buy your argument about Dr. Darell's motivation, even if I can't quite empathize. (I guess I just can't suspend my disbelief enough to fear mental adjustment by a hidden society; and in fact, when I read Second Foundation, I have to not let my brain linger too long, because the actual idea of Second Foundationers lurking in plain sight, controlling minds, is too hard for me to swallow. Not sure why, when I readily accept so much else.) But I had one other characterization problem as I finished the story this time through.

I wish Asimov had left Arkady untampered with. Now, I have no idea how he could have done that and still had a story — but there's something callous and cold that I just don't like about discovering that this wonderful character has never truly been herself. It rubs me the wrong way, especially in light of the otherwise upbeat tone of the ending.

Also, there's this: Is it fair to call the original trilogy an investigation of materialism as religion? Or something like that? From psychohistory to the First Foundation's razor-sharp development of encephalography in this book (which supposedly allows one to determine whether a brain has been mentalically adjusted), the recurring theme is that every aspect of human behavior is ultimately quantifiable, and mathematically determinable. Asimov was an atheist and lifelong scientist, so maybe he liked the idea of reducing hearts and minds to trackable patterns of electrons, at least at the time.

But it's not an idea I like very much — my metaphysics (since you mentioned Star Wars) can be summed up pretty well as "Luminous beings are we; not this crude matter." So I guess to answer your question — does it really matter which Foundation wins, as long as Seldon's plan is victorious? — and to address "Search by the Foundation" as a potential overall end to the series: I'm very glad he went on to write Foundation's Edge, which to me wraps up everything far more satisfactorily (though I'm not so sure about Foundation and Earth). So unless you have any objections, shall we move on to that book?

AW: I suppose I'm just a far more paranoid person than you, because I can totally buy the lurking, omnipresent threat of the Second Foundation. I've got to agree with your point about Arkady — honestly, I think it would have been better for Asimov to leave her untampered. It might have been a small plot hole, but it feels like an unnecessarily harsh ending for such a wonderful character. As these things go, it was probably a twist too far.

Religion is definitely all over this initial trilogy, although I still struggle to articulate precisely the point Asimov is making. I suppose I might call the message of this trilogy an intensely humanistic one: Even the seemingly unknowable can become known and quantified, and humanity can gain the tools to predict its own future and peer inside its own minds. Of course, there's still a deeper philosophical question — what's the point of all this, really? — and I think the realization of that metaphysical hole in the original trilogy is part of what Asimov wrestles with in Foundation's Edge. So, as you say, let's move on to book number four.

"Blogging the Hugos" is a series examining the Hugo Award–winning novels in (more or less) chronological order. Coming tomorrow: Foundation's Edge, by Isaac Asimov, winner of the 1983 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Subscribe to the RSS feed and follow @blogginghugos on Twitter for updates.

Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. Alasdair Wilkins lives in Los Angeles and is a reporter for io9.